By R.L. Bynum
NEW ORLEANS — There are plenty of elements that have North Carolina playing its best basketball of the season, but the savvy decision-making and court leadership from RJ Davis since he became nearly the exclusive ball-handler are at the top of the list.
The No. 8-seed Tar Heels have been on point with the 6–0 sophomore running the show.
With Caleb Love playing more off the ball, the chemistry of the offense has gotten better with Davis as the catalyst. Armando Bacot and Leaky Black both said that UNC’s offense has flowed better since the switch.
“It allows Caleb to do what he does best and that’s just score the basketball and allow him to play-make a little bit sometimes,” Bacot said. “But RJ on the ball has been great because we all have a defining role now.”
Black said Davis’ facilitating ability made the shift perfect.
“I feel like that’s what’s best for the team and obviously is what got us to this point,” Black said.
That guard duo had plenty of turnover issues last season and that continued for much of the first half of this season. But as Davis and Love have gotten better at their new roles, the turnover rates have fallen and success has soared for the Tar Heels heading into Saturday night’s second national semifinal against Duke.
“It doesn’t really matter to me if I’m going off the ball,” Love said. “Our offense is set up to where everybody touches it.”
Davis said it took half the season before he took his current role because Coach Hubert Davis was trying so many different things and seeing what works.
“This is more about building chemistry and just trying to see what fits and what works,” RJ Davis said. “I think moving me to primarily ball handler just orchestrating the offense for a better offensive flow. It allows guys to score more. I know where they like the spots; I know he would like to shoot. This is more about helping them and at the same time helping myself.
Even over the first half of the season, Davis was the primary ball-handler, but that role shifted to nearly full time in February.
“I think it’s helped both of them and then it helps everybody else on the floor around them because they’re so good at facilitating and controlling the ball,” Brady Manek said.
Last season, Coach Roy Williams expressed frustrations that Love didn’t always run the offensive sets he called but didn’t have that issue with Davis.
Although Love has become better this season in that regard, he’s still more inclined to shoot or drive than pass. Davis has been a more dependable facilitator to run the offense and get teammates good shots, and playing off the ball has given Love better chances to take advantage of defenses.
“I think we’re both scorers and score the ball at a very high clip,” Davis said. “The way he likes to shoot the ball coming off down screens. If I’m able to penetrate the defense and kick it out. I think it works pretty well.”
Davis has the amazing ability to drive the lane against much taller players and somehow put up a twisting shot over them or kick out to an open shooter.
“He’s really good at drawing defense,” Manek said. “He finishes well around the rim and he can also pass when he gets in there. And he’s been playing on an unbelievable level.”
RJ Davis’ ability to find seams in the defense and get the ball to open shooters has made Carolina tougher to defend.
“My teammates trust me to find them in the right position at the right time, and my coaches put the ball in my hands,” Davis said. “I’ve been a point guard my whole life, so it’s nothing new. I’ve been distributing and shooting the basketball since I was a kid.”
That trust has Carolina two wins away from a national championship.
At Superdome, New Orleans
Saturday’s national semifinals
No. 2 Villanova (30–7) vs. No. 1 Kansas (32–6), 6:09, TBS
No. 2 Duke (32–6) vs. No. 8 North Carolina (28–9), 40 minutes after first semifinal, TBS
Semifinal winners, 9:20, TBS
Photo via @UNC_Basketball